John Milton’s epic poem about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is so influential that it’s not unusual for people to think they’re remembering a detail from the short (and not very detailed) biblical story when they’re really remembering Paradise Lost. We owe the idea that the fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple to Milton, not the Bible. And much of how we imagine Satan comes from Milton, who gives him a full-fledged psychology where the Bible is content just to mention him a few times.
Basically, in Paradise Lost, Milton has taken the first three chapters of Genesis and built a massive 12-chapter poem that fills in the gaps with ideas from other parts of the Bible as well as Milton’s own imagination. Genesis provides a simple story, with little explanation of the characters’ thought processes. Milton puts flesh on those characters by getting into their heads and telling us what they’re thinking and showing conversations in which characters explain themselves or share their plans, all with the intent to “justify the ways of God to man.”
I read huge chunks of Paradise Lost during my very first college English class. It felt to me like we spent the whole semester on the poem. I was glad to have read the key passages, if only because it’s one of those masterworks of literature in English that students “should” read. But I never would have revisited it, much less read the whole thing, had it not been for my church’s book group, which chose to read it this fall. We had a wonderful time with it, reveling in Milton’s gorgeous language, puzzling over his theological ideas, fuming at his patriarchal attitude, and laughing at Satan’s futile (but sometimes all too understandable) schemes.
Some have suggested that Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost. I wouldn’t agree with that; I think it’s clear enough that Milton means for us to see Satan as the enemy. But Satan’s absolute unwillingness to submit to anyone, especially God, is easy for us to understand. This unwillingness to submit is Satan’s defining characteristic, and isn’t it also a characteristic that we love in our literary and cultural heroes? And when he first learns that the tree of knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to Adam and Eve, it’s hard not to agree with his logic:
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance? Is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and faith?
Of course, what Satan fails to note is that God isn’t denying Adam and Eve all knowledge, just a particular sort of knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil. There are plenty of examples in Paradise Lost of God giving knowledge to Adam and Eve. Perhaps what he wants to keep them from is the sort of knowledge that can only come through hard experience.
As one of the members of our group noted, Satan’s also a pretty good organizer. Early in the poem, he conducts a council of demons that is more orderly and productive than many a meeting I’ve been in! (Satan as CEO. Now there’s a business book idea for you.) I think, though, that Milton would just say that our ability to relate to Satan is a sign of his influence over our values.
Milton’s God is not nearly as easy to relate to as Satan. For one thing, he knows everything before it’s going to happen. And he’s so calm and cool all the time. I grew up with the idea that Adam and Eve had close contact with God in the Garden of Eden, but Milton depicts God as distant, mostly communicating with Adam and Eve through angels who serve as his representatives. Still, God is always watching over Adam and Eve, and Milton makes it very clear that God wants them to choose the right path out of their own free will. As the archangel Raphael explains here:
God made thee perfect, not immutable;
And good he made thee, but to persevere
He left it in thy power; ordain’d thy will
By nature free, not overrul’d by fate
Inextricable, or strict necessity;
Our voluntary service he requires,
Not our necessitated; such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find; for how
Can hearts not free be tried whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By destiny, and can no other choose?
The frequent references to free will are Milton’s main way of justifying God’s actions in Genesis. He also has God intervene more than God does in the biblical account. When Satan starts snooping around the garden, God actually sends Raphael to warn Adam and Eve again not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve have no excuse; they knew the danger and had the freedom to choose to obey God or not.
Of course, I can’t avoid saying something about the depiction of Eve, which drips with patriarchal assumptions. I don’t, for what it’s worth, think Milton was exceptionally misogynistic. I mostly think he was a man of his time and living with certain embedded assumptions about the proper role of women. For instance, Eve is often kept out of important conversations between Adam and the various angelic emissaries, forcing her to eavesdrop. Milton perhaps just saw that as the way things are. (One of the members of my group said she was being sneaky, at which point I noted that she should have been invited into the conversation.)
To Milton’s credit, he doesn’t depict Eve as a dippy weakling. Yes, she does say to Adam, “God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more/Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise,” but she also puts up some pretty decent arguments against Satan when he’s tempting her. And it’s really interesting that Milton, drawing on Genesis 3:16, has Jesus say to Eve, “…to thy husband’s will/Thine shall submit; he over thee shall rule.” Here, Eve’s submission is depicted as a consequence of the Fall, which is curious when their relationship looks hierarchical from the very beginning. I really think Milton can’t quite wrap his head around what an egalitarian relationship might look like. What even the text depicts as a consequence of sin is, for Milton, the natural order of things.
I could go on and on about the theological ideas in Paradise Lost. There’s the idea of felix culpa—that the Fall was a blessed event because it brought about a greater good, the coming of Christ. Milton doesn’t say this outright, but there are glimmers of this idea in the text. And then there’s Milton’s trinitarian theology and his digs at Roman Catholicism. The whole balance of grace and free will could fill several posts!
But Paradise Lost isn’t just a theological treatise. There are some amazing flights of fancy here. One of my personal favorites is the unholy trinity of Satan, Sin, and Death. And there are long poetic descriptions that don’t advance the story, but that do demonstrate Milton’s gift with the English language and his erudition. He draws upon mythology, science, geography, and so much more. There were, I admit, times when I wanted him to stop with the fancy talk and get on with the story already, but that probably just speaks to my being out of the habit of reading poetry and my tendency to put off my reading until a day or two before book club, forcing me to rush. I did find that the story is not all that hard to understand, particularly when I took the time to carefully read the arguments at the start of each book and when I read the poem aloud.
For a theology and literature geek like me, Paradise Lost is essential reading. But I think lots of readers would appreciate the richness of Milton’s tale. It’s one of the great English-language poems for a reason.